Band in Berlin

American Music Theater Festival, WHYY Forum Theater, 150 N. Sixth St., through March 22, 569-9700

Band in Berlin is basically a concert, and an entertaining one at that - including "Tea for Two" in German and a sublimely silly rendition of the overture to The Barber of Seville.

In 1992, Arts at Saint Ann's in New York put together a classically trained male-voice-and-piano ensemble to recreate the music of the Comedian Harmonists, a phenomenally successful German vocal ensemble (five voices and a pianist) that toured Germany, Europe and America from 1927 to 1935.

The ensemble (the New York one, that is), under the name of Hudson Shad, has lived on and expanded its classical repertoire to include the music of Kurt Weill and others. And the initial concert program, then called In the Time of the Comedian Harmonists, lives on too, with a new title, and with the addition of a narration, slides (of art banned by the Nazis as "degenerate"), newsreel footage (of Hitler and Nazis on the march), shadow puppets, filmed interview footage and home movies.

Band in Berlin is still, basically, a concert, and an entertaining one at that. The singers of Hudson Shad blend together as well as did the Comedian Harmonists (to judge from the original group's recording played at the top of the show). The music is delightful, including "Tea for Two" and "Happy Days are Here Again" translated into German, and "Stormy Weather" and "Night and Day" translated into French. And the comedy (for "comedy" read "novelty numbers") is charming, the vocalists imitating musical instruments to perform a hot version of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Song" and a sublimely silly rendition of the overture to The Barber of Seville.

A member of the original Comedian Harmonists, Roman Cykowski, lives on too, as a 97-year-old retired cantor in Palm Springs. And Band in Berlin features black-and-white interview footage and an amplified voiceover narration of the group's history.

But wait a minute. The interviews are not with Cykowski but with an actor playing him. And the home movies are not home movies, but the members of Hudson Shad romping around the woods and through the streets of New York as if they were in a 1930s version of A Hard Day's Night.

If Band in Berlin is successful as period entertainment, it fails as documentary, in part because, as a documentary, it's essentially bogus, passing off re-enactment as documentation. This doesn't really matter on stage (we know that Hudson Shad is not the Comedian Harmonists). But a scratchy film shot from a hand-held camera is something else.

And, not to trivialize the group's hardships, but it's not much of a Holocaust story either. All three of the Jewish members managed to leave Germany, and all six survived the war. The big event of Act 2 is a concert in Stuttgart after the group was condemned as a "Jewish Gang," and that event is something of a non-event: the performance is canceled, and then it isn't; the show is stopped by hecklers, but then it isn't (the storm troopers in the first row insist that the show go on). The script - credited to co-creator (with Wilbur Pauley) and co-director (with Patricia Birch) Susan Feldman - skips over the lawsuits and countersuits between the Gentile members and the Jewish members-in-exile about who has rights to the name. Instead, Band in Berlin relies on simple ironies and fatuous visual counterpoint (a lullaby is sung against slides of Hitler as a child, etc., etc.).

So don't expect a book show (there's one already in the works, Broadway bound, that Barry Manilow is hawking), don't expect a documentary (there's been one), and don't expect a dramatic retelling (there's a new German film that does that). Moreover, don't expect high drama, and don't expect original music. Seeing Band in Berlin is like watching a reconstructed concert by a vocal ensemble imitating the Trapp Family Singers, singing German folk songs and Christmas carols, without either Rogers and Hammerstein's songs or Lindsay and Crouse's book for The Sound of Music. Come to think of it, those omissions aren't a bad idea; and the Comedian Harmonists at least have a much snazzier repertoire.

For the record, Hudson Shad consists of Mark Bleeke, Timothy Leigh Evans, Hugh Munday, Peter Becker, Wilbur Pauley (who did the vocal arrangements) and pianist Robert Wolinsky (who did the keyboard arrangements).

-Cary M. Mazer